WASHINGTON — As Republicans squabbled over Donald Trump's controversial proposal to bar all Muslims from traveling to the United States, the House on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill imposing new restrictions on a visa waiver program that currently welcomes roughly 20 million people into the country each year.
The bill, which was approved on a 407 to 19 vote, would increase information sharing between the United States and the 38 countries whose passport-holders are allowed to visit the country without getting a visa, while also attempting to weed out travelers who have visited certain countries where they may have been radicalized.
The strong vote in the House could put momentum behind efforts to include changes to the program in the omnibus spending package — a must-pass bill that lawmakers are trying to finalize before government funding expires on Friday.
But there are key differences between the House bill and a measure from Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., which has not yet been scheduled for a vote.
The House-passed measure received the backing of the U.S. Travel Association, despite initial concerns that Congress would go too far in tightening the waiver program's security requirements following the Paris terror attacks.
The visa waiver program was launched in the 1980s as a way of boosting business travel and tourism to the United States and hundreds of millions of people have taken advantage of the initiative.
Democrats and Republicans have sparred over stepped-up security proposals made in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., terror attacks.
Most Democrats have decried Republican attempts to suspend the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees until background check procedures improve, while most Republicans have dismissed Democrat-led attempts to prevent known or suspected terrorists from obtaining a firearm or explosive device.
House Democrats staged a protest Tuesday over a recent rejection of their measure to ban those on the no-fly list from buying guns, forcing a series of floor votes to call attention to the issue and delaying the vote on the waiver program.
But Democratic leaders urged their members to back the bill, calling the reforms "responsible" and "sensible."
While an earlier vote to suspend Syrian and Iraqi refugee admissions "showed the country and this body at its worst," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, "Today's bill makes sensible improvements to the security of the visa waiver program."